Should I talk about Fritz Haber? We think it is necessary. Moreover, this will be a story about the scientist’s responsibility to humanity, about the collapse of his personal aspirations, about the tragedy of his people. The 20th century gave many examples of how outstanding scientists gave their talent, their energy to the Moloch of destruction and annihilation. But Haber was the first in this galaxy.
First use of poisonous substances
“There is nothing new in the West,” military reports report every day. The phrase, thanks to Remarque’s translators, will sound familiar in Russian: “No change on the Western Front.” In the protracted spring of 1915, the German command did not manage to achieve a turning point on the Western Front, and the frenzy of national enthusiasm that gripped the population in the first months of the war was replaced by a longing for lost hopes.
On April 22, 1915, the Belgian town of Ypres will be written in dark ink in the book of world history. On this day, April 22, near Ypres, the Germans for the first time used the poisonous substance chlorine for military purposes. The wind carries gas to the French positions. Chlorine tightly covers the trenches and trenches, people suffocate, writhing in pain, spitting blood. Thousands of soldiers die on the spot; those who are lucky enough to survive face years of torment…
Shortly before the first use of poisonous substances (OS), an energetic man in the uniform of an officer of the highest rank appears on the German front line. He explains to front-line soldiers how to use chemical weapons, ardently convinces them of their undeniable advantages, distributes gas masks in units and teaches them to breathe in them if the wind turns in your direction. Those who see him will remember his fearlessness: on the front line, pulling an ugly gas mask over his face, he, without bowing to bullets, moves under fire.
The man’s name is Fritz Haber.
Haber – scientist
The name of one of the founders of modern chemistry is mentioned next to the names of Max Planck and Albert Einstein. With the first he is connected by an unclouded mutual affection, with the second – by many years of close friendship. Unlike his great contemporaries, Fritz Haber, with his characteristic energy and managerial talent, equally enthusiastically devotes himself to his own theoretical and laboratory research and the search for the practical application of discoveries, building bridges between science and industry. He tirelessly implements the adage born at that time:
“The greatest invention of the nineteenth century is the invention of the method of invention.”
The orders of a rapidly developing industry require improved technology, and Fritz Haber readily responds to these requirements. In 1909, he discovers an industrial method for obtaining ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen – this discovery brings him to the forefront of world science. Two years later, he is the head of the Institute of Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry founded by him in Berlin. A significant part of the resulting ammonia goes to the manufacture of artificial fertilizers. This helps to provide Germany with most of its bread needs.
Haber is a patriot
Jewish by birth, Fritz Haber was a German patriot from an early age. He was born in 1868, three years before the unification of Germany, the air of his childhood warmed up by the general enthusiasm caused by German power and German unity. One of the first childhood photographs depicts him with a toy gun in his hand. In his youth, he willingly interrupts his education in order to do his military service. Having already stepped on the scientific path, he accepts Protestantism. He is not guided by career considerations – this corresponds to his inner sense of his position in the fatherland. Until the war begins, the fiery patriotism of the majority of German scientists, which more and more smacked of primitive nationalism, remains a “home” affair: the exchange of experience, without which the development of science is unthinkable, by itself keeps representatives of the scientific world within the framework of international relations. With the outbreak of war, scientists from different countries are separated battle lines, their activity turns out to be oppositely directed.
Fritz Haber eagerly takes on the fulfillment of military orders, looking for any opportunity for Germany to survive and win. Its scientific institution is expanding and strengthening. Instead of the five employees with whom he started, he now has 150 researchers with a total staff of 1,500 people. The military industry invests heavily in its research. He receives a high rank, rotates in the highest government and army circles. This satisfies his ambition, but even more answers his moods and needs for work on the widest scale. He comes up with the idea of chemical warfare and thereby calls into question the glory of the great scientist. “genius and villainy are two incompatible things.” The fields, where, thanks to artificial fertilizers, it was possible to obtain an unprecedented grain harvest, are pitted with trenches and funnels, in which soldiers blacken their faces and die painfully.
Later, Fritz Haber will be added to the list of war criminals, and he will justify that he was only ahead of the allies, who were also preparing a gas war, that the use of chemical agents was supposed to induce the belligerents to conclude peace as soon as possible, that the directed use of gas is still “more humane” than senseless mass A week after the first gas attack, Haber’s wife Clara, a gifted woman, also a chemist, a person of very fine mental organization, kills herself with her husband’s service revolver.
Khaber is a man
It is not difficult to imagine Fritz Haber as a villain, a merciless dogmatist, a murderer by conviction. Not at all. Contemporaries remember him as a kind, reliable friend, prone to reflection, introspection, sometimes depression, drowning in the energy of activity the languishing contradictions of the personality. Einstein, who differed in many respects from him, choosing completely different paths at the crossroads of history, writes, as if summing up the results of many years of friendship: the spiritual world and the works of Fritz Haber are one of the most significant phenomena bestowed on him in life; and, he adds jokingly, that Haber liked to have a cup of coffee with him. This is also a diabolical feature of the phenomenon, which was previously denoted by the simple term “defense industry”: many of the best people of our time, who gave the world, and sometimes directly to some of us, bright ideas, aroused heartfelt confidence when communicating with them, are simply good friends, with which we, in secret conspiracies in the famous “kitchens”, agreed word for word in assessing the regime, but in their “boxes” they worked for the war, looking for reliable means of protecting the regime and destroying their own kind.
In 1918, Fritz Haber was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. In the Weimar Republic, he is in the honorary circle of celebrities from science, a welcome guest at all kinds of celebrations, receptions, meetings. His social energy, perhaps, has diminished, his works are more drawn to science than to industrial production, he devotes a lot of time to the training of young scientists, heirs.
The coming to power of the National Socialists abruptly and finally changes his fate. The scientific genius of Fritz Haber is not interested in the new authorities, he remains just a Jew who has no place in the Third Reich.
Fritz Haber emigrates. Max Planck writes to him:
“The only thing that gives me some relief in this state of depression is the thought that we live in a time of catastrophe that any revolution brings with it, and that we must perceive much that happens as a natural phenomenon.”
Fritz Haber has only a few months left to live. He dies outside his beloved fatherland in January 1934. The German “defense industry” begins to prepare for the war already without the Fritz Habers.
No chemical weapons were used on the battlefields of World War II. It found use in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and other death camps.